I think I mentioned in an earlier post that I wouldn’t try to claim absolutely everything in this world for beauty. And that’s the truth – especially in this city, where the number of beautiful, arresting sites is probably close to inexhaustible. I don’t have to dig too hard. I’m speaking about physical beauty here, the type of beauty one can see, and though something like that is hardly quantifiable, it tends to lend itself at least towards the chance of broad agreement. For example, the general line would probably go – Central Park: beautiful, McCarren Park: not.
I won’t argue otherwise. McCarren Park is pretty ugly. But I will try to claim it, and anywhere else you care to mention, for the beauty that comes with knowing the background of a place. I ride by here everyday; I hang out here at least once a week eight months or so out of the year. So do a lot of other people. It just seems right that I should know the forces that made up this spot. What do we ultimately gain by that? I don’t know. Is that a question? I guess it’s just one way to pass the time really. And it reminds me that I’m doing that, passing the time, imbuing it with what ever meaning that I choose. And that makes me feel better. When I’m in an art museum (again, inevitably the Met) and I see something like a decorated water pitcher from some ancient Roman household, I feel the same thing. This object served a function in a place and way of life that is now completely gone. These people had their meanings, and their rituals, their daily lives. Sometimes they got thirsty and they took a drink. Now it’s my turn. Let’s see what’s going to happen.
McCarren Park was ultimately built upon the land that made up the lower end of Bushwick Inlet. You can see it on the bottom of this 1766 map. Incidentally, that little spit of land sticking out into the East River, in the middle of the map below Newtown Inlet, was the original spot sailors referred to as Greenpoint, from which the whole neighborhood would take its name. Until about the 1830s this area was all farmland, settled almost entirely by just five families (including the Meseroles and Calyers). Development began in earnest after that and by the time the park was built, between 1903-1905 the neighborhood was close in layout to the one we know today. The site that would make up the park was divided into four blocks by separate trolley lines; the city acquired each block in turn and proceeded to build two playgrounds with gymnasium equipment, one for boys around Bedford Avenue & North 14th Street and one for girls around Manhattan Avenue & Driggs. They named it Greenpoint Park.
Its name was changed to McCarren upon the death of Patrick Henry McCarren in 1909. He was a state senator of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, and a central figure in pushing for the construction of the Williamsburg Bridge. He was also supposedly a pretty corrupt ally of big business monopolies like Standard Oil, and a heavy gambler at the racetracks (hey, these were still the Tammany Days). Soon after the park changed its name a whole series of athletic facilities were built upon it, and in 1914, Brooklyn’s first children’s farm garden, where kids were taught to grow crops on small plots of land. The biggest development of all was the pool, the 8th out of 11 swimming pools opened throughout New York City in the summer of 1936, all built by the Works Progress Administration. Based on this picture I’d say that the New Deal in general was pretty fucking awesome. Here’s to government spending! But I won’t get all political on you. Some of the kids in this photo are probably still living in the neighborhood, walking these same streets. And some of their great-grandparents might have been related to the original five families, again walking these same streets when they were country lanes connecting farmhouses to each other. Probably none of them are related to the Keskachague Indians who lived here before it all, but you never know. You need to go pretty far around here to find someplace that hasn’t been stepped on already, and even then you’re only guessing. That’s true of almost anywhere really, except maybe some sub-Antarctic Island. Anybody want to go to some sub-Antarctic Island? Most of them are uninhabited, and always have been. My first pick would probably be Campbell Island. Here’s a photograph. It gives a good idea of what we’re dealing with – more like the opposite of footprints. Still, isn’t it beautiful?
(Originally posted Mar. 12th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)